Microsoft RSS Patent Applications Cause a Stir, Then Simmer

When and if McDonald's attempts to patent the cheeseburger, the news of so brazen an effort to claim ownership of such a ubiquitous commodity will likely be met with skepticism, scorn, and no small amount of laughter. When news broke late last year that Microsoft was attempting to patent technologies related to Really Simple Syndication (RSS), it was met with outrage, fury, and countless cries of theft and corporate tyranny.

Microsoft filed two separate RSS-related patent applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on June 21, 2005—three days prior, incidentally, to the company's announcement that it would be expanding support within Internet Explorer for RSS. News of the patent applications reached the press and the syndication community on Dec. 21 of last year, after a mandatory 18-month waiting period had expired. The language of the applications was characteristically obscure, and it was not immediately clear which facets of RSS technology Microsoft was claiming to have invented. But open source watchdogs in the blogosphere were in no mood to wait for a subtle analysis from sedate patent lawyers, and the vitriol came raining down. 

The day the applications were made public, RSS-innovator Dave Winer was livid on his Scripting News blog. "Today I received a link to a patent granted to Microsoft, where they claim to have invented all this stuff," he wrote. "Presumably they're eventually going to charge us to use it. This should be denounced by anyone who has contributed anything to RSS." The next day Winer noted that Microsoft had merely applied for patents, and that the patents themselves had not yet been granted. But Winer's sentiments were echoed throughout the blogosphere, where predictions of the future of web syndication were dire. 

Cooler heads prevailed on FeedDemon-creator Nick Bradbury's blog. Bradbury, who can also claim a significant role in the development of RSS technology, wasn't quite ready to "jump on the ‘Microsoft is evil' bandwagon." He wrote of "sleazebags who file patent applications on obvious ideas, and then wait for someone like Microsoft to infringe on those patents. In other words," Bradbury continued, "companies like Microsoft often file patents to prevent having to shell out millions of dollars to predatory lawyers who haven't invented anything other than a legal pain in the ass." 

The phenomenon Bradbury describes is often called "patent squatting," and it is not uncommon for large, wealthy companies like Microsoft to play defense with patents of their own. When Microsoft itself finally spoke out on the matter, however, it became clear that these patents would be neither defensive nor wholesale claims on RSS technology.

Writing on the Microsoft Team RSS Blog, program manager Sean Lyndersay said, "these patents describe specific ways to improve the RSS end-user and developer experience (which we believe are valuable and innovative contributions)—they do not constitute a claim that Microsoft invented RSS." And in an attempt to take some of the wind out of critics' anti-Microsoft sails, Lyndersay went on to note that other companies, including fellow tech behemoths Apple and Google, have also filed for patents in the RSS arena.

The specific "innovations" that Microsoft refers to in the applications—including centralized subscription lists and feed data normalization—are themselves viewed as dubious by some. But syndication aficionado Niall Kennedy was at least partially convinced that portions of the applications were "new and interesting (and possible inventions)," as he wrote on his eponymous blog.

Whatever the implications of Microsoft's attempted RSS patent grab may be, attorney Bruce Sunstein, head of the patent practice group for the Boston-based law firm of Bromberg & Sunstein, says they are a long way off. "It could take years for these patent applications in computer science to be processed by the patent office," he says. Sunstein predicts that any patents Microsoft attains could lead to the integration of advanced RSS formats into offline applications like Word and PowerPoint. But when asked whether there's any chance of Microsoft gaining a monopoly on RSS technology, his answer is concise: "Hell, no."